In the opening moments of the newest adaptation of Dune, the first visuals on screen are of the sun falling behind the iconic dunes that dominate the desolate planet of Arrakis. The voice of Zendaya's Chani monologues about how her people, the Fremen, live on this planet, which outside forces continually target for its resources.
The forces coming to Arrakis seek to get the rare Melange, often referred to as "spice," at any cost since it's invaluable for interstellar travel. The Fremen hope to drive away these invaders to ensure their planet can become a vibrant and green ecosystem.
Although this vast and magical world feels distant and strange, it's closer to home than many realize. Born out of the mind and dreams of an author who started writing in Washington state, Frank Herbert created one of science fiction's most influential stories from our backyard.
Herbert was born October 8, 1920, in Tacoma. Growing up around Puget Sound, he gained his appreciation for the beauties of the natural world here and found himself drawn back to the area. He worked as a reporter at various papers, including Seattle's first newspaper, the Seattle P-I, in 1969. Though Herbert did not immediately find success in fiction writing, he would quit the P-I to write novels full-time.
Early in his writing career, Herbert worked on a magazine article on the Oregon Dunes near Florence, Oregon. As he traveled there in 1957, it was at this moment when he first caught sight of the dunes that would inspire his most memorable novel, Dune, and all the subsequent books in the series. The article was never published, though it found new life in the works Herbert became most known for.
Director Denis Villeneuve has now adapted the expansive story of Herbert's science fiction epic into one of the biggest films of the year. It's a film that scratches the surface of Herbert's universe, only covering the first half of the first novel, but it is inescapably grounded in Herbert's focus on our relationship to the environment. While the acclaimed author died in 1986, at 65, he lives on through his writing and influence, from blockbuster films to smaller, more local projects.
One of the many people influenced by Herbert is the science fiction author Erik Hanberg. For Hanberg, the inspiration and themes found in the Dune series have stuck with him. A president of Metro Parks Tacoma (more on that in a minute), Hanberg told me that when he first read the Dune series back in middle school, it showed him that there could be a future for writers from a town like Tacoma.
"I saw that Frank Herbert was from Tacoma, and that was a surprise to me because I didn't know you could be from Tacoma and go on to do things," Hanberg said.
Later in life, Hanberg would read Dreamer of Dune: The Biography of Frank Herbert, which the author's son Brian wrote. Hanberg said a specific section stays lodged in his brain.
"It was just full of these wonderful stories about Frank Herbert in Tacoma. Swimming in the Narrows, canoeing to the San Juan Islands and grabbing the side of a barge when he got tired," Hanberg said. "As I kept reading, there was a part where he was dismayed about American Smelting and Refining Corporation (ASARCO), the smelter that was just creating air 'so thick you could chew it.'"
According to the Washington State Department of Ecology, in the more than 100 years when the ASARCO smelter operated in Tacoma from 1890 to 1985, "air pollution from the smelter settled on the surface soil of more than 1,000 square miles of the Puget Sound basin." Because of this pollution, "arsenic, lead, and other heavy metals are still in the soil."
The passage from the biography recounting the impact this had on Herbert detailed how these environmental conditions in his hometown would shape the stories he would ultimately tell in Dune.
"[Herbert] was a daily witness to conditions in Tacoma, which in the 1950s was known as one of the nation's most polluted cities, largely due to a huge smelter whose stack was visible from all over the city, a stack that belched filth into the sky," the biography reads. "The increasing pollution he saw all around him, in the city of his birth, contributed to his resolve that something had to be done to save the Earth. This became, perhaps, the most important message of Dune."
For Hanberg, reading that passage was an exciting connective moment.
"This line was like 'holy cow.' Tacoma was so polluted that we inspired the environmental message of one of the greatest science fiction stories of all time," Hanberg reflected.
Even with all the pollution, Herbert's work contains optimism and a path forward, in spite of a dire and threatening future.
This optimism is front of mind for Dr. EC Cline, an associate professor at the University of Washington Tacoma in sciences and mathematics. They grew up reading Herbert after their father first introduced them to the stories when they were 11 as a Christmas present.
"I was probably a little young to be reading it, but the planetary ecology just really caught my attention even from that early age," Cline told me. "Growing up in the Pacific Northwest, I knew that he was a local author, and I think that was probably why my father loved those books."
For Cline, Herbert's writing brought out the "environmental ethos" of the region.
"Just thinking about how humans interact with their environment, I think that was something that he really tapped into," Cline said. "Herbert just did such a great job of engaging with the complexity of a planetary ecosystem."
This complexity made Dune an anomaly in the science fiction world of his time.
"A lot of the science fiction then was very simplistic in the way that it treated the environment, so it was definitely a huge step forward," Cline noted. That step forward allowed readers to imagine a better world.
"I think that's the power of fiction. It can capture our attention and get us thinking a little bit beyond where we're at currently," Cline told me.
Dr. Gerry Canavan shares this understanding of science fiction. Canavan is an associate professor of 20th and 21st Century Literature at Marquette University and has written extensively about science fiction.
While Canavan didn't get to Herbert's work until he attended graduate school in the 2000s, he shared over email how he considers Dune to be a foundational text.
"Its impact on the genre is undeniable. Not only is it one of the major texts lurking in the background of Star Wars, but it's one of the first major SF works to take both environmentalism and anti-imperialism seriously," Canavan wrote. "There's a reason why it has endured."
That enduring legacy includes how it approached the specific, real-world concerns about the environment.
"Dune is a just slightly twisted version of the real-world history of oil capitalism that has caused so much misery in the Middle East and, in an age of international terrorism, in the imperial center as well," Canavan explained.
When I asked Canavan if he was looking forward to the new film adaption, he said he always feels "a certain amount of dread" whenever something dense like Dune tries to move to the big screen. "There is a sort of necessary flattening that happens when you go from a mammoth series of novels to a single two-hour experience."
I was also skeptical about if the film could pull it off. Its marketing campaign didn't instill confidence.
Last month, the film's studio promised to roll out environmentally destructive non-fungible tokens (NFTs) before the film's release, leading many to encourage those behind the idea to check out the books they were adapting. They shelved the NFT idea.
Introducing Dune: Future Artifacts, the digital NFT collection of works unearthed from the shifting sands of Arrakis. The first collection drops September 22nd on @makersplaceco. https://t.co/kdlxcIhd7r@dunemovie @HansZimmer @RealChalamet @Zendaya pic.twitter.com/hxO3OOlibO
— Legendary (@Legendary) September 10, 2021
For those living in Pacific Northwest, Herbert's messages about our climate catastrophe still resonate. Herbert moved Hanberg so much that he began a years-long push to remember the author in a fitting way: by creating a park to honor him in the area where he grew up.
For more than 30 years after the ASARCO smelter shuttered forever, a waterfront "slag heap" of piled-up arsenic and other contaminants remained at the site. Once cleaned, it seemed the perfect spot for a tribute to Herbert. The tribute site was supported by community in Tacoma, and also here in The Stranger. It represented a poetic reversal of the location's fortune.
"The EPA was going to cap it, and Metro Parks was going to build a beautiful park on top. I was like, 'Here we have a chance to have this really wonderful cyclical tribute where the thing that inspired the environmental message of Dune, we are going to take that and turn it into a beautiful green space,'" Hanberg told me. "Doesn't that sort of actually mirror what the Fremen are trying to do in the book? They're trying to take this ecological disaster on Arrakis and turn it back into a green planet again."
The efforts paid off as the Dune Peninsula park was opened in 2019.
"This went way bigger than I thought it would. But over the years, people really started to connect with the idea," Hanberg said. "It just became this really wonderful park, and we're recognizing Dune in Frank's hometown."
This mirroring of the work of the Fremen is something Cline has been a part of as well. They gave a talk in 2015 that drew connections to how the removal of the Elwha dams in Washington "left behind sandy expanses of sediment reminiscent of the desert planet" in Dune. Cline was one of many researchers involved in restoring that area.
"It was a huge project," Cline emphasized. "It was a really amazing effort, and it was pretty successful in the sense that if you go out there now, it's just incredible to see the lupine that's come back." Cline explained that lupine is a species of plants that are "nitrogen fixers," which bring nutrients to the soil. They offer a second chance to the area.
"You walk out there, and it's just amazing."
Though small in scale, these projects mark examples of Herbert's ability to inspire hope in generations of environmental activists.
"Very few people write a book simply to announce 'we are doomed' — almost everyone who writes a book about catastrophe is writing in some effort to resist it," Canavan said to me. "Today, it's hard to write a book about the future that doesn't in some way or another account for environmental crisis, and that's part of the legacy of Herbert."
Just as Herbert imagined his way out of an environmental crisis, that same work falls on us today as we seek out the most recent interpretation of his work. It's an imaginative exercise with life or death stakes.
"Science fiction is really great at imagining," Hanberg told me. "One of the things that science fiction is called to is to write about the climate. Not only the dystopia where everything goes wrong, but let's write about the world where we're addressing it."
Dune is currently playing in theaters and on HBO Max.